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Comments (7) Posted 08.23.07 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

Another Myth Brilliantly Debunked


paperbox.jpg
Popular Science, June, 1956.

In 1933, just three months after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 13 folding-carton manufacturers met in Washington DC to organize objectives and clarify for their constituents a proposed Code of Fair Competition, providing for 40-hour work weeks, a minimum wage of 40-cents per hour for men in the North (35-cents in the South) — and 5-cents per hour for women.

The Folding Paper Box Association of America would go on to influence more than just packaging regulations: a half-century before the Poynter Institute would claim authorship for its allegedly revolutionary Eye-Trac research, the FPBAA was already tracking viewers' visual responses to packaging.

ASL-eyetrac6.jpg
Applied Science Laboratories Eye-Trac 6 System, 2006.

To be fair, the Poynter studies were significant because they targeted news rather than product consumption. Yet both studies, requiring cumbersome headgear and coordinated technologies, operated on a really simple premise: detecting where the eyes go, and what happens next. Pretty basic, when you get right down to it: the eyes as a barometer of consumption patterns.

Designers, of course, have always known this.

Years ago, before he experienced a sort of pedagogical epiphany (and looked to more principles-based approaches in his teaching), Paul Rand assigned projects based on the commercial culture within which he was deeply and professionally engaged: it was not uncommon, in those early days at Yale, for Rand to ask his students to redesign chewing-gum packaging, cigar boxes and boxes of soap flakes.

Duz.jpg
Christopher Pullman, packages of DUZ Soap Flakes,1965.

By the early 1970s, Rand had abandoned these commercial exercises in the studio at Yale, but the act of evaluating packaging in situ has long remained a viable method for designers seeking more comprehensive and indeed, critical insights with regard to visual product placement.

Do scientific investigations impact upon such methods? At one extreme, this is precisely the goal of focus group testing and market research. (Two things, by the way, that Rand absolutely deplored.) At the other extreme, the notion of trying to quantify response mechanisms, while worthy of the occasional fantasy, is — in the manner of, say, Rube Goldberg — simply preposterous. Sure: what designer, or marketing executive, or capitalist client wouldn't salivate at the thought of knowing exactly what to produce, to spoon-feed a target audience into blissful, brainwashed complacency? Or is this the artificially sanitized world of the mad scientist — a world where the visual reaction, like the mind itself, is unduly monitored?

In the "be careful what you wish for" department, the whole idea of audience measurement has always fascinated me, because it is about as close to science fiction as the design disciplines are likely to get. Not that I am a science-fiction fan — far from it, in fact. But every time I see tools of surveillance masquerading as advances in engineering, I shudder. With webcams and their progeny infiltrating every aspect of contemporary culture, it shouldn't be so hard to figure out the traceable habits of modern consumers, but every couple of years, someone comes along with an ersatz helmet filled with wires and tells us it can be done.

lobotomy.jpg
Inventing the Lobotomy, date unknown.

As for The Folding Paper Box Association of America. they later merged with the Institute of Better Packaging, founded in 1929: by the late 1960s, both were folded into an umbrella group known as the Paperboard Packaging Council, which to this day remains an active industry advocate for all things packaging-related — just as the Poynter Institute remains a key institution for all that is connected to journalism. Clearly, the world needs better, more environmentally-sound containers — just as it needs better, more visually extraordinary packaging, or better, more accurate news coverage. Meanwhile, there is no question that there are more profound discoveries to be made at the nexus of design and science, within which the study of eye movements (and by conjecture, of consumer habits) may well play a part. As to why this lust for more accurate barometers of vision remains such a core fascination, one wonders: has the design community failed to communicate to the larger population that attracting viewers' eyes is simply what we are trained to do?
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Comments (7)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Really interesting historical information, Jessica, particularly the info about Rand.

Elliott Young, the founder of Perception Research, has worked with eye-tracking since the 1970s and has successfully used this technique for decades. It seems like hocus-pocus, but as one who has witnessed the process and seen the results, it is amazing.
debbie millman
08.23.07 at 01:56

one wonders: has the design community failed to communicate to the larger population that attracting viewers' eyes is simply what we are trained to do?

But I wonder: how do you know that you have actually accomplished this without testing it? How do you know that what you've designed is visually attractive to a woman as well as a man? A child as opposed to an adult? Eyeballing and intuition will take you only so far given the complexities of today's consumer market.

Eye tracking has its limitations because it answers really one specific design question: What is the relative visual hierarchy of attractiveness of this package, or store display, or digital interface?

Paul Rand may have been a human "eye tracker." But, I know some really great designers, and even people don't respond to their work as they expect. Thus, they iterate based on that feedback. For designers who are still learning the nuances of visual discernment, getting more exact feedback on
the accuracy of the effectiveness of their design decisions is a helpful tool.

I agree that there is a fetish of the quantifiable that makes clients spend a lot of money (perhaps unnecessarily) to find out the answer to one question: What is the relative visual hierarchy of attractiveness of this package, or store display, or digital interface?

But if you are launching a multi-million dollar product, spending a $100K on evaluating the design is perhaps not a lot of money wasted. For the designer, it provides more revenue based on the additional iterations.

There is also an underlying assumption that eye-tracking might prove a designer's decision to be wrong; it may prove them right. Then, designers will have the "hard data" to show that "attracting viewers' eyes is simply what we are trained to do."

Dori
08.24.07 at 09:10

God, I love that Chris Pullman package for Duz.
Michael Bierut
08.24.07 at 09:47

There are countless times I have worked on a package redesign and recommended to clients a redesigned packaging system that they initially felt was too "far out" and/or eliminated messy elements they were sure consumers would miss. In some cases, the only way to prove them "wrong" was via research. The nice thing about eye-tracking is that it provides fairly empirical data proving that if you do indeed make the logo smaller, people will still actually view it first.
debbie millman
08.24.07 at 10:37

research. smeesearch.

People love to look at (and buy) swooshed logos too, apparently. One of my favorite packages was Minute Maid's black orange juice container designed by Duffy some 10 years ago. They still use the
black contained logo, so maybe theres hope for packaging designers.

If you know exactly what you are going to do before you do it, why bother doing it? —Picasso
felix sockwell
08.24.07 at 12:17

There are countless times I have worked on a package redesign and recommended to clients a redesigned packaging system that they initially felt was too "far out" and/or eliminated messy elements they were sure consumers would miss. In some cases, the only way to prove them "wrong" was via research. The nice thing about eye-tracking is that it provides fairly empirical data proving that if you do indeed make the logo smaller, people will still actually view it first.
debbie millman
08.24.07 at 03:17

Who gives a crap about the science of eye-tracking? The most fascinating thing about your post was right up front:

a proposed Code of Fair Competition, providing for 40-hour work weeks, a minimum wage of 40-cents per hour for men in the North (35-cents in the South) — and 5-cents per hour for women.

Putting aside the "fairness" of paying men 8X what women earn, is there an industry trade association or industry lobbying outfit anywhere on the planet nowadays that supports workers rights, minimum wage laws, or worker safety in lieu of corporate profits, reducing taxes and regulation? Now that's fascinating.
Mark Kaufman
08.29.07 at 03:37


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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

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